When I first worked at the newspaper trade in Washington, back in 1966, it
was a different journalism. I don’t mean the difference in the technology, the 24-hour news cycle, or the ramped up interest in celebrity. I mean
something more protean, more organic.
I worked at The Washington Daily News -- a tabloid in size but not in
mission -- and we covered the news in a very traditional way: whatever our
news judgment demanded. Although we were a Washington afternoon newspaper, politics was just part of the mix.
The Daily News had one full-time congressional correspondent, and we sent
reporters to Capitol Hill when there was really a lot going on. The
Washington Post -- then as now the dominant paper in town -- covered The
Hill more intensely, but not with the intensity that it does today.
In short, political coverage was more laid back; not asleep, but not as
frantic as it is now. Nobody felt it necessary to record every slip of the
tongue, or where a congressman had lunch or, for that matter, with whom.
Certainly, nobody felt they should shun the wine list -- and few did.
Covering the White House was a simple matter: once through the gate, you
could stroll through the West Wing and talk to people. Today, even if you
have a regular or so-called hard pass, you are restricted to walking down
the driveway to the press briefing room. If you have an appointment, or want to smell the flowers, you have to have an escort – usually a young
person from the press office. Why this is, and what the purpose of this minder is, nobody has been able
to tell me. It is so dispiriting to see the equanimity with which reportersaccept their prisoner status.
It did not happen overnight, but gradually under president after president.
In my time in Washington, reporter freedom has been curtailed at the White
House to the point that unless you want to go to the briefing, there is no
point in going through the gate. No news is available because you, the
reporter, are not at liberty to collect it.
News out of the White House now has to be gained off the premises, on the
phone or by the Internet. The briefing room is a dead zone for print
reporters, with the television reporters going back and forth with the
press secretary, which is what their medium demands. No news is brokenexcept when the president saunters in and things pick up. That is not worth hanging around there day after day.
But the real change is the proliferation of political media, including the
such dedicated publications as Roll Call, The Hill, Politico, The National
Journal and the cable news networks. This means there are more reporters
chasing snippets of news. The big issues get lost as often as not while the
news hounds are baying after trivia, little non-events, misstatements, or
failure to apologize for imagined sleights.
Also, White House staffers and people who work on Capitol Hill have less
and less confidence in reporters and are less frank with them. I find very
little point in interviewing Congress people these days because they worry
that whatever they say will, if you like, go into their record to be
dredged up way in the future.
The other great organic change is in reportorial ambition. Back in the
1960s (and I must confess I started reporting in the 1950s), reporters
longed to be foreign correspondents; to go abroad and tell us about life in
faraway places. Today, with the emphasis on politics, the ambitious
reporter longs to cover politics in Washington. So if there is a big
international event, such as the Iraq-ISIS conflict, it ends up being
covered through politics. What did Obama say about it? Has John McCain been heard from?
This affects both our understanding of an issue, and does nothing to ameliorate propaganda narratives. Over-covering the snippets does not help:
It obscures when it should clarify.
A lot of news used to come out of reporters' long lunches with politicians.
Now the number of drinks served, as espied from another table, would be the
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle,”
on PBS. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.